Thirty-nine years ago today (as I write this) was a Sunday. In Los Angeles, one hundred miles to the north of where I was living at the time, history was being made. For the very first time the Olympic Games included a marathon for women. Prior to that date no woman had even run so much as a mile in the Olympic Games. So every mile run after the first in that 26.2 mile race was a brand new record.
The Russians, in a stereotypically infantile fashion familiar to us today, boycotted the Games in retaliation for our boycott of the Moscow games four years earlier. They weren’t needed. It was the strongest women’s marathon field ever assembled without them. Besides, the Russian Olympic committee, composed exclusively of men, had voted against it. They didn’t think women deserved to have a marathon. They were wrong, of course, and for anyone doubting it, that day proved them wrong.
It couldn’t have been a more ideal race for Americans. Not only was the very first Olympic marathon for women held in the United States, but just past mile two, in a move that the male commentators called a “mistake,” it was an American who took the lead. By mile five, after looking back at the chasing group some two hundred metres behind her with an expression that was a mixture of surprise, pity and contempt, she never looked back again. From that moment to the end of the race, Joan Benoit kept increasing her lead. It was the finest, most breathtaking, most perfect and inspiring example of athletic courage I had ever witnessed. It still is.
It was also the beginning of an education for me. I’m embarrassed to admit it but I was a stereotypical product of my time. It wasn’t that I doubted that women had what it took to be courageous leaders and athletic and political heroes, it just never occurred to me that they did. All my heroes up to that point were men, and white men at that. Like I said, it was the beginning of an education.
Since then, of course, I have seen other examples, also inspiring, where women proved they could equal and surpass the works of men. It’s a lesson that has always been available to us all, but not a lesson that has been easily learned by us all.
There can be little doubt that Hillary Clinton would have handily beaten Donald Trump in 2016 had she been a man. As it was she beat him in the popular vote. But her inability to claim the right to compete on equal footing, without having to overcome her gender as a handicap, is a shame that redounds to every one of us. And it exposed a weakness that later proved disastrous to the entire world.
But who can forget the innumerable investigations and committee interrogations that Secretary Clinton was subjected to in the exclusive name of political belittling? Republicans desperately wanted to find something, anything, that they could use to destroy her career or even put her in prison, for daring to commit the unforgivable sin of being a powerful woman. She sailed through every contest meant to destroy her with unequalled poise and cool competence, unruffled by doubt, unbent by fear, sustained by unpretentious courage and irrefutable competence.
And to think some were “worried” that a woman might be too “emotionally hysterical” to govern! When I think of the recent performances of that quintessential man-baby, that Caps Lock Creep, that puddle of insubstantial goo called Donald Trump, who has repeatedly and disgracefully melted down in the presence of an adversity of his very own creation, I laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Even so, character is not the exclusive property of one gender. It is absent in men and women alike. It is present in men and women alike. It’s time we put aside our foolish prejudices once and for all time and recognise this fact.
Like men, it’s time we recognise that women rise and fall on their own individual merits. When a man fails, or turns out to be a fool, we call him a failure and a fool. For example, Donald Trump is a failure and a fool. He doesn’t represent all men, just himself. It’s time to realise that the same applies to women and stop insisting that every woman represent her gender. That’s where misogyny comes from. That’s where bigotry comes from.
Women today play a critically necessary role in the world, a role that is every inch as vital as the one played by men. Sometimes that role is to their credit, sometimes it is not. But we can be proud of their successes or embarrassed by their missteps because they represent themselves and not their gender.
But we can also recognise that the ones who shine so marvellously as heroes do so in the face of extra adversity. The glass ceiling is still theirs to overcome. Unequal pay is still a reality. The absurdly outdated idea that women can’t rise to the level of competence of men is still part of their struggle and still a shameful component of the present paradigm.
It has always amused me that the feminist slogan “nevertheless, she persisted,” was first coined by Mitch McConnell. He said it with a kind of resigned disgust after his attempt to silence Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor. Senator Warren was objecting to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions, the awful and disastrous man who later became Donald Trump’s first in a long line of corrupt Attorneys General.
When Joan Benoit won the first Olympic marathon for women she did it because she ran her own race. She invited unbelievable pressures by taking the lead in front of a billion witnesses, and she did it without the smallest tremor of self-doubt or apparent fear. Nevertheless, she persisted.
When she entered the final bend of the track to cross the finish line and claim her Olympic gold medal, Benoit’s impassive face broke into a huge smile and she removed the painter’s cap she’d been wearing for the entire race. I recall saying at the time, half to myself, half out loud, “No ma’am, my hat’s off to you.” It still is. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.